This nightmare of organisation responds, however, to what Whyman feels is a deep need within the region. Ultimately, this is a venture driven by artists. “We did a lot of listening and asking artists what made Edinburgh valuable for them,” Whyman tells me. The response was overwhelming in its enthusiasm for the artistic opportunities offered by the festival, but the associated costs, particularly of accommodation, emerged as a major barrier, even for more established companies. To lower this barrier, Northern Stage is taking on many of those costs through a collective, collaborative approach. In Whyman’s words, “this model has just shifted the balance”, spreading the load to make the festival more affordable.
Is this an approach that other venues and artists might adopt in order to take work to Edinburgh? Whyman’s answer is careful. “It’s up to every project and every region to work out what’s best for their artists,” she says, acknowledging that this is not a realistic or desirable model for everyone. She goes on to explain that “there’s a kind of logic” to the project that Northern Stage has mounted: “In the case of the North, we happen to be a venue that already presents, develops and co-produces a great deal on a small scale, which isn’t true of everybody.” Conversations sparked by the St Stephen’s season have, however, revealed an interest in other parts of the UK, raising the possibility that we may see more regional or venue-based programming at Edinburgh in future years.
Such conversations tap into a growing obsession with collaboration, a preoccupation born from the difficulties imposed by recent and forthcoming cuts to Arts Council funding. Not only is Northern Stage participating in its own collaborative activity by bringing together artists from across the North at St Stephen’s; the theatre will also be harnessing these discussions during the festival at Stronger Together, a day of debate and provocations about collaboration in the arts. Following last year’s symposium at Northern Stage’s Newcastle home, Edinburgh would appear to be the perfect forum in which to throw these discussions even wider.
This year’s conversation, I am told, will differ from 2011 in more than just location. “Unlike last year, when we were all still reeling from the funding decisions, good or bad, this year it feels like there’s a need to talk differently about collaboration and to make sure that we are in charge of it in this sector,” says Whyman. Collaboration has become such a ubiquitous buzz word in the arts that it is vital for platforms such as this to take a step back and interrogate it. “We’re posing the question that day: can collaboration change the game, and if so what game do we want it to change?”
The day will feature speakers such as David Jubb, Vicky Featherstone, Chris Thorpe and Lucy Ellinson, as well as a case study from Globe to Globe organiser Tom Bird, offering an international lens on what collaboration can mean on a large scale. The format partly borrows from the Open Space Technology that has become synonymous with Devoted & Disgruntled, allowing attendees to put forward topics for discussion and weave freely in and out of different conversations.
Whyman explains that the day is less about the collaboration that Northern Stage has forged and more about how all artists can collaborate better – as well as when they should avoid collaboration altogether. One intriguing contribution is to come from Andy Field, who will discuss the experiences of Forest Fringe since losing their Edinburgh venue, exploring “the idea that you might move the conversation forward more effectively by resisting and by not necessarily doing what people expect you to do”. It is a provocative challenge to the popular feeling that collaboration is always positive.
Doing the unexpected and confronting new challenges brings us back to Northern Stage’s own ambitious model of collaboration. Only through execution will it be made clear whether such a model can work, but this is undoubtedly a bold move from Northern Stage and one that could mark a shift in the way in which artists approach Edinburgh in future years. Vitally, Whyman’s approach to collaboration is one that is not only asking “how can we do it better?” but also “how can we resist if necessary?”
For full details of Northern Stage’s Edinburgh programme, please visit their website.